By: Hellenic Folklore Centre
Special Contributor: Ioannis G. Panayiotakis
From the most distant to modern times, the Cretans associate
every moment of their social life with music and dance. At the
harvest, when relaxing, at religious ceremonies and feasts,
at weddings, births and deaths and in lamentations - at every
opportunity, the Cretans sing and dance their joys, sorrows,
bad luck, love, bravery, etc...
Cretan musical instrument
The songs and dances of Crete are many and differ from province
to province, from area to area and even between villages. The
same thing happens with the musical instruments which prevail
in each area, depending on the historical and social conditions.
Musical instruments are used according to the occasion. At
big celebrations, festivals and weddings, the lyre or the violin
is played and is accompanied by the lute or the guitar. In East
Crete, the daoulaki (small drum) and the yerakokoudouna (small
bells fixed onto the bow of the lyre) are used as accompanying
The main musical instrument in Crete is the lyre, which made
its first appearance in Crete during the 17th Century or the
beginning of the 18th Century, and which has three shapes: the
pear-shaped lyraki (small lyre) with a small shallow body and
a sharp note; the also pear-shaped vrontolyra with a big, deep
body and a loud deep note; and the viololyra , which is seldom
The lyre that has predominated and is played today in Crete,
was designed and first manufactured around 1940 by Manoli Stagaki
in his instrument workshop which still exists today in Rethymnon.
Lyres are made of black mulberry, walnut or maple wood. The
bow is made of loquat wood and hairs from a horse’s tail.
Once upon a time, lyre players made their own lyres. Today there
are professional lyre manufacturers who sell them not only in
Crete and the rest of Greece but also abroad. Antonis Stephanakis,
in Zaro, Iraklio, is one of the best-known lyre manufacturers
For smaller groups of friends or for private family parties,
apart from the lyre, the violin, the lute or the daoulaki, the
mandolin or the mandola may be played. With these instruments,
people sing the famous mantinades, improvised couplets which
are mainly erotic, satirical, teasing, etc. The lyre-players
are the best lyric-writers, but all Cretans are distinguished
for the ease with which they compose mantinades at the drop
of a hat.
The most common musical instrument in Crete from the time of
Erotokritos to this day - with certain variations - must be
the lute. Erotokritos himself:
“took his lute and walked quietly
and played it sweetly outside the palace
his hand was sugar and he had a voice like a nightingale
every heart that heard him cried and wept.”
A very ancient pastoral instrument which, despite its long
historical development in Cretan musical life is today tending
to disappear, is the askomantoura (the ancient bag pipe). The
same thing is happening to the thambolia or sphyrochambiola
(pastoral flutes). The pilgrim to the monastery of St. Phanourios
at Valsamonero, Iraklio, can see St. Phanourios playing the
askomantoura on an icon of the 15th Century A.D.
It is very easy to organise a party in Crete. Good mezedes
(bits and pieces to eat), plenty of wine and tsikoudia (a strong
spirit), eager instrumentalist, the mandinada players with their
improvised lyrics and the party has gelled. Until morning they
exchange mandinades which touch on thousands of original topics.
Most of them are about love, both requited and unrequited, and
about the progress of the guests at work, at the hunt, with
In Crete we can distinguish two kinds of music. There is the
dance music which we meet throughout the island, and the rizitika
songs which are something like the slow kleftiko songs of the
tavlas of mainland Greece. They are called rizitika because
they sprang from, developed and are sung in the villages which
are situated on the riza, i.e. on the slopes of the White Mountains
in Chania prefecture.
Rizitika are divided into songs of the tavla and of the strata.
There are more tavla songs. According to their verses they can
be divided into akritika (featuring mainly Digenis Akritas),
into songs about love, marriage, joy, into historical songs,
into heroic and allegorical songs. The strata songs are mainly
wedding songs, which they sing when they take the bridegroom
or the bride to the church, or christening songs and others.
They still sing rizitika in Anopoli, as they do throughout
Sfakia. The most important local narrative song, however, which
has an epic character and great historical value is the song
of Daskaloyiannis, the hero of Anopolis who was the leader of
the first rebellion of the Sfakians against the Turks in 1770.
The song, which has 1034 verses, was composed and dictated to
someone who could write by the shepherd Uncle Pantzelio of Anopoli,
seventeen years after the events it describes, namely in 1787.
In East Crete, the position of the tavla songs is taken by the
kondylies, a series of repeated revised motifs on top of which
they sing mandinades.
After a certain point, song cannot express the spiritual intensity
of a festivity and here the code changes. Dance takes over.
The most skillful join in a circle in various ways and create
tsambakia, depending on the dance and the mood. They dance the
Kondylies in a slow dance and then request ortses, the fast
pentozali. They calm down with the wonderful syrto and finish
up in a burst with the Kastrino, Sitiano or Roumathiano pidichto
or with the Anogean ortses. If there are women in the group,
they dance the soustes in pairs, where unconfessed desires erupt.
From the time of the Cretan rebellions and the repeated visits
of allied fleets to Crete, a new dance appeared, the polka,
which is still danced today.
Anogia is a big town in Mylopotamos county of Rethimnon prefecture.
Weddings in Anogia still take place today with all the forms
of the old customs. The women busy themselves with weaving.
The Anogean woolen woven materials, with their wonderful folk
motifs and their variety of colours and patterns, are very well
known. Today, Anogia has acquired a great reputation for its
good musicians and its excellent dancers. The Anogean pidichto
is danced only here in Anogia, and there are only a few who
still dance it.
The inhabitants of the village Armeni, in Sitia county of Lasithi
prefecture, are well known for their festivities and they organise
dances at every opportunity.
Kria Vrisi is a village in Aghios Vassilios county on the
south-east side of Rethimno prefecture. The inhabitants are
olive producers and stock-breeders As it is a mountain village,
it has only a few orchards and vineyards. So to protect them
in the springtime from hedgehogs and badgers that come out at
night and destroy them by disturbing the freshly-turned soil,
they invented the moungrinara. This is an instrument that sends
off the pests with its loud note.
If you are genuinely interested in getting to know the wealth
and depth of the Cretan soul, you must come to Crete during
the off-peak periods and stay for some weeks in a non-tourist
place. Only with the devotion of a pilgrim and the passion of
a collector of treasures will you be able to discover the unknown
life and the centuries-old traditions of the villages of Crete.
RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS IN CRETE
(Names of village/s are followed by the corresponding prefecture
11/1 St. Antonios : Kasteli Pediados (Iraklio)
18/1 St. Kyrillos : Kalogeri (Rethimnon)
2/2 Candlemas Day : Skouvroula (Iraklio)
10/2 St. Charalambos : Xida (Iraklio)
11/2 St. Vlasis : Machairi (Hania)
25/3 The Annunciation : Paleochora (Hania),
Tzermiado (Lasithi), Prasas (Iraklio)
23/4 St. Georgios : Selinari Mirambellou (Lasithi), Asi Gonia
8/5 St. Ioannis Theologos (John the Baptist) : Stilos (Hania),
12/5 St. Photeini : Avdou (Iraklio)
21/5 St. Constantine & St. Helen : Arkadi Monastery, Arkalochori
30/5 St. Meletios : Chora Sphakion (Hania)
Holy Sririt : Moroni Kenourgio, Kalo Chorio (Iraklio)
24/6 St. John : Rethimno
30/6 Holy Apostles : Apostoli (Rethimno)
15/7 St. Kyrikos : Lambiotes (Rethimno)
17/7 St. Marina : Kato Chorio (Lasithi), Aghia Marina (Hania),
Aghia Marina , Voni, Tsalikaki (Iraklio)
20/7 Prophet Elias : Kato Chorio (Lasithi), Gergeri (Iraklio),
Kasteli Kissamou (Hania)
15/7 St. Anna : Kato Chorio (Lasithi), Geraki, Kato Asites (Iraklio)
26/7 St, Paraskevi : Kalives (Hania), Melambes, Sisarha (Rethimno),
Skotino Pediados (Iraklio)
27/7 St. Panteleimon : Omalos (Hania), Kounavi, Harakas (Iraklio)
30/7 St. Syllas : Kalo Chorio Mirabello (Lasithi)
6/8 Transfiguration of Christ : Voukolies (Hania), Males Ierapetra,
Voulismeni Mirabello, Zakros Sitia (Lasithi), Arkalochori (Iraklio),
Ano Meros Imario
8/8 St. Myron : Aghios Mironas (Iraklio)
12/8 St. Mathew : Agh. Fotis, Kasteli (Hania)
15/8 Assumption of Virgin Mary : Neapoli, Piskokefalo,
Orino (Lasithi), Agh. Vasilios, Archanes,
Aitania, Metaxochori, Mohos, Choudetsi (Iraklio),
Anogia, Axos, Eleftherna, Thronos, Kolivos,
Sisarcha (Rethimno), Kolimbari, Kalives (Hania)
24/8 St. Kosmas Aetolos : Kritsa Mirabello (Lasithi)
24/8 St. Eftychios : Kambanos (Hania)
25/8 St. Titos : Timbaki (Iraklio)
27/8 St. Phanourios : Vorizia (Iraklio), Agh. Pandes (Hania)
29/8 Decapitation of St. John : Tzermiado, Ziros, Agh. Georgios
31/8 Holy Girdle : Psichro (Lasithi), Asfendou (Hania)
2/9 St. Mamas : Kiriakoselia (Hania)
14/9 Holy Cross : Tzermiado, Kalamafka, Savros (Lasithi)
15/9 St. Nikitas : Frangokastelo (Hania)
24/9 Birthday of Virgin Mary : Praesos Sitia (Lasithi)
8/10 St. Pelaghia : Aghia Pelaghia, Aghia Varvara, Vori (Iraklio)
26/10 St. Dimitrios : Ramni (Hania) Diavaide (Iraklio)
8/11 Archangels Michael & Gabriel : Potamies (Iraklio)
11/11 St. Minas : Iraklio, Archanes, Episkopi (Iraklio)
13/11 St. John Chrysostom : Stalida (Iraklio)
25/11 St. Catherine : Kalives (Hania)
5/12 St. Savvas : Kentri Sitia (Lasithi)
6/12 St. Nikolaos : Armeni (Hania)
|Source of the
information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”,
Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of
Greece, click here.